Monday, December 26, 2016
Resolution and repetition
Jacob Little is a stern and striking character in Licking County
history, and one of our sources for it.
He wrote a history of Granville for publication in the 1840s when
there wasn't much yet to tell, you'd think from the perspective of
2017, yet his detail and engagement as a pastor with the events of his
village and county make the forty years he covers come alive.
He was also famous for his New Year's sermon, which every January
First was preached to, we're told, a packed house. Keeping in mind
there were no bowl games on television back then (or televisions), he
didn't have much competition, but the story goes that folk who weren't
even members wanted in on the spoken narrative because Rev. Little
That's right, he looked back over the previous twelve months, tallied
up the sins of the people and the community, and then talked about
them as the new year began. With specifics. Like referring to leading
citizens (by name, mind you) in saying that they "did not draw a sober
breath in twelve years."
The tale is softened a bit by hearing that this announcement led to
said citizen's sobriety, but a modern preacher can't read that and
think "wow, lawsuits."
Parson Jacob stood and delivered from 1827 to 1865, but truth be told
he was somewhat unceremoniously hustled out the door at the end of his
tenure. Perhaps some of those less favorably impacted by his preaching
were in favor of his departure.
It does make me think. As a pastor, as much as a preacher. What hard
words need to be preached? When is a stern and stark statement the
most loving sermon to speak?
I can also reflect as a historian over Little's legacy: he tallied up
dances held, parties with liquor attended, distilleries established,
and admonished those who broke the Sabbath by firing up their smithies
and applying adzes to lumber. Yet other than some celebrations of
membership rolls increasing for temperance societies, the tally tends
to grow in a direction opposite Little's desires. Some categories he
appears to just give up on. Perhaps he helped lay some groundwork for
Prohibition, but we all know how that turned out.
And in our more information-driven age, we have a confused but higher
standard of proof expected. Rev. Little would add up offenses using
pre-teen informants he'd gather up for a few pennies and send to add
up evidence. Not that phone surveys seems to work much better going by
the last election cycle, but that's some shaky ground to stand on to
condemn persons, let alone parishioners by name.
If I were to "go Little" in a New Year's sermon, I'd be tempted to
draw together some information that's well confirmed, and talk about
what I might infer from it; or what people of faith in particular and
people of good will in general might do in response.
Licking County currently has right around 350 children under 18 "in
care." That's not a record, but it's up. Opiates and heroin are
considered to be a big reason as to why, as employment and wages are
improving, families might be going through more stresses to the point
where the authorities have to step in and take custody. How can
Christians work to make a difference in this area on addiction and
recovery? How can churches and other groups in the county work
together more effectively to help keep families from reaching that
Recently, we had a man in the county arrested on the road for his
ninth "operating a vehicle under the influence" or OVI offense. I've
heard a great deal of conversation and condemnation of the fact that
this could happen. According to the Sheriff's jail census earlier this
week, we had 272 of our family, friends, and neighbors in the Licking
County Justice Center across Christmas weekend; but of those, only 8
appear to be OVI offenses. Meanwhile, of all the offenses that did get
folks in there over the holidays, I'm told by folks in a position to
know, were violent and abusive and criminal acts triggered by
intoxication, whether by drinking or through drugs. What might
intervene in a life to help them make choices better than the ones
listed under "Charges"?
Numbers can only tell us so much; the souls behind each statistic have
a story. It may be a story that needs to change, but it needs to be
heard to help write that new chapter, perhaps in a new year.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell
him about your story for the new year at email@example.com, or
follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Notes From My Knapsack 12-29-16
Year's end, sound the alarm…
Each time we come to a New Year's Day in Granville, I think about Jacob Little, the feisty and persistent pastor of what's today First Presbyterian Church – he's honored with a window in the sanctuary there, the longest serving minister in that congregation's history.
But he saw himself as parson of a parish that included the whole village, and the surrounding area. His pastoral care, in a stern Puritan early 1800s fashion, was to watch and monitor and list the problems he saw in town.
For that austere Calvinist, this meant naming names and announcing his tallies of dances and who danced, of distilleries and who imbibed, or crimes and criminals known or unknown. Sabbath-breaking, of course, being a crime that to him was of great import.
Sabbath-keeping, of course, is the grand exception today. I have just enough of that spirit in me to feel uncomfortable mowing my lawn on a Sunday afternoon, even though demands of my own pastorate have kept me from it through the week, and the forecast ahead is rain. Jacob's reach (and my grandmother's influence) has kept me from such temptation on all but a mere handful of occasions.
The human frame does seem to be made with a need for Sabbaths of some sort. We have to sleep, a greater natural imperative than even food and drink; our routines work best if given a regular interruption. Scholars not of a religious bent have studied behavior, economic and otherwise, and found that we actually get more done in six days of work and a day of rest than if we try to work seven days a week without pause.
So I want to give Rev. Little his due. And this year ending has reminded me in some new ways what deserves tallying, no matter how hard to quantify, and to suggest some needed changes. This has been a year now for me with a fully functional smartphone, one with all the "bells and whistles." And the old steamboat term "bells and whistles" has a completely different meaning with a cell phone that is packed full of beeps and buzzes and alerts and tones, visual and aural alike.
As I've learned how to manage and mute these "helpful" tools on something that now accompanies me in and around my life 24/7, it has also made me more aware of how our world has become so filled with pings and chimes . . . and how we respond to them, with a jolt of alertness and presumably a parallel surge in adrenaline.
Other people's phones, microwave ovens, landlines in various office spaces where I have responsibilities that have an array of their own "rings" plus more lights and such; smoke detectors wanting new batteries on a distant staircase, computers with a vast panoply of audible cues. My oh my.
Jacob Little's parishioners had a bell. In the church. That the sexton rang if the bucket brigade was needed, or if a funeral was to start through the week, or of course church on Sunday. One bell, a few different ways to ring it. The pioneers before that had a trumpet kept over somebody's fireplace, and the ancient alert of coyotes howling or their own dogs barking. That was it.
Perhaps in this "age of anxiety" as Auden tagged it since 1947, what we need to keep growing anxiety at bay is to find some regular time away from alerts, chimes, pings and bongs. What must the regularly irregular tension of "checking" be doing to our endocrine system, our nerves, our souls? A Sabbath from sounds other than of nature, at regular intervals, might bless us all.
Even stern ol' Jacob would approve, I believe.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he keeps his phone on vibrate pretty much all the time. Tell him how you cope with constant alertness at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Christmas Eve 2016
The shepherd sat upon his rock,
the fire burning low.
A night so cold cried out for flame,
for warmth and not for show.
He was not hidden, a lonely guard,
attending to his flock.
This hillside spread beneath the stars
where grazing was his stock.
Open above, slope bending east,
Bethlehem to the west,
He and his fellows long had paced
these fields for forage and rest.
Some said a youthful David did
watch over Jesse's beasts
In these same fields where today
they had their humble feasts.
Now gnawing bread and chewing slow
this shepherd to his fire
Huddled closer, seeking warmth while
recalling heav'nly choirs.
They all had seen and heard the hail
from angels bending low.
Each shepherd wanted to respond
but one was not to go.
So this lone task the shepherd's drawn
to watch out o'er the sheep.
The rest all ran to Bethlehem,
the vision's promise keep.
What would he miss, the guardian thought,
of God's own Word made known;
A babe whose place in some great plan
In some time yet be shown.
Alone, but for the sheep his care,
the shepherd thought, and prayed.
Then suddenly above appeared
one wing'ed youthful maid.
A single member of the host
again was present there;
Returned this one - to sing for him,
To honor faithful prayer.
She sang to warm his heart, her song
rang out from up to down;
Her music's flow described what was
revealed to those in town.
The birth of Jesus set before
him though the distance long
Between him and his shepherd friends
meant that he'd not belong.
But this lone angel sent by God
to reassure the one
That on his watch, to faithful hope,
a heavenly answer'd come.
His place was with the flock, and there
The presence of the Lord
would also be made known, to those
obedient to his Word.
While shepherds were the Savior shown,
a guardian kept his faith;
And God was present to each & all
Just as the promise sayeth.
The angel then withdrew, but he
no longer felt alone.
He felt his place in God's great plan
while sitting on his stone.
At times we each may find that we're
left outside in the cold,
And wonder if we are within
the story God has told.
Let angels sing, and listen we
to their music soft and clear,
Whose harmonies should tell us all
Our Lord is with us here.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Faith Works 12-24-16
You will never have another quite like it
In "A Christmas Carol," as the second spirit of the story appears to Ebenezer Scrooge, they have this conversation, beginning with a statement that includes a bit of a question:
"You have never seen the like of me before!" exclaimed the Spirit.
"Never," Scrooge made answer to it.
"Have never walked forth with the younger members of my family; meaning (for I am very young) my elder brothers born in these later years?" pursued the Phantom.
"I don't think I have," said Scrooge. "I am afraid I have not. Have you had many brothers, Spirit?"
"More than eighteen hundred," said the Ghost.
"A tremendous family to provide for," muttered Scrooge.
Nearly another two hundred siblings have come along since Charles Dickens wrote his story. And the Spirit of Christmas Present each year would say "I am unique," and not without cause. There is a distinct family resemblance, but like any other set of brothers, they are each particularly themselves.
When you're young, you have no idea how conservative you are, as tradition has such sway over our likes and dislikes. We expect to do the same things, put up the same decorations, eat the same foods. Some addition is tolerable, but subtraction is usually noticed immediately and disapproved of most completely.
My son is back from his first year of college, and there's a hunger, a deep-seated need to get back some of that familiarity lost in the hurricane of new this fall, so we're grabbing every piece of Christmas with both hands. And I remember now afresh how much I disliked coming home to find changes in the patterns and practices of the season. I wanted everything to be "the way it always was."
And in church, each modification gets extra scrutiny this time of year. One Christmas Eve, a few years ago, I didn't end our candlelight service with "Silent Night." Most have forgiven me by now, but it was not a decision greeted warmly at the time; I've warned I may do it again, but I'm not sure anyone really believes me . . . and with the bicentennial of the carol coming in 2018, it's not going to happen any time soon.
Yet right there is the point: no one sang "Silent Night" with uplifted candles before 1818. It's not something with an unbroken heritage right back to Bethlehem. It just feels that way.
So we make changes to our traditions, but ideally with great care, deep sensitivity, and love in all our choices. Because the thing about any one of our Christmas celebrations is: we'll never see another one like it. Ever.
There are those we will never celebrate the holiday with again, and their memory is present, but that absence changes the shape of the whole event.
Presents, even though we tell each other every year they don't matter, still color our experience of each year's observance. What you got is often a big part of what you remember.
Every occasion of Christmas is different, and you can't replicate one in the next or any other year. And that only makes sense as you think about it.
And it gives us a different way to think about what it means to remember the One whose birth we celebrate each Christmas. Hebrews 13:8 says "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" even as we know each of us encounters him with our own limited understandings, and see him through the lens of our assumptions and expectations, at least until we see more clearly . . . someday.
Wihla Huston wrote the well-known carol "Some Children See Him" in 1954, talking about all the many different ways kids and not a few adults envision Jesus, infant or adult. And I think of that song's closing verse:
"The children in each diff'rent place
Will see the baby Jesus' face
Like theirs but bright with heav'nly grace
And filled with holy light."
There are those similarities running along through our stories of Christmas, and yet like beads on a necklace or links in a chain, each piece has its necessary place. There are the many ways we see Jesus, and there is the common thread weaving all our understandings together "with heav'nly grace."
May this Christmas illuminate your life with the grace of Jesus Christ!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about how you see the baby of Bethlehem in your own life at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
Faith Works 12-17-16
Halls cold as stone, warmed by starlight
Clutching his robe a little closer around him, he walked slowly up the stone steps, round and round into the upper part of the tower.
The echoing halls were quiet; here in the imperial capital, winter meant damp and chill. Most of the court, and many of the wise men of the academy had traveled south to the warmer coastal parts of Persia.
Of the twenty senior magi, he was the only one in residence. By far the oldest, he had not gone with the three sent on their behalf to the east, and ironically the cold meant he felt too crippled up even to ride their calmest camels down to the ocean shores.
But the round of observations and recorded notes had to be maintained, and he was glad to have the work. The longest nights of the year were about to pass, and tomorrow the sun's rising should show a notch in the horizon guide back to the north. The days would be lengthening, and the promise of warmth to return. There were festivals on the official calendar to be announced, predictions of eclipses and seasons ahead.
Yet he could not help but also keep his separate log of the conjunction to the west, as the two great wandering stars, the golden and silver ones, wove their paths into a coming together, a drawing apart, and the a return. These regal lights were inscribing onto the heavens a pattern in which he was convinced he saw a rhythm, a series of movements which logically would bring them around from the west to the east, and a conjunction with the morning star, perhaps the more portent-filled heavenly body in the sky.
It was in search of further wisdom, prophetic knowledge, and better observations over time that had taken his students away to the east, across the great desert beyond the Euphrates. Caspar and Melchior and Balthazar were young enough to travel, but old enough to have the wisdom it would take to navigate the negotiations with foreign kings and distant academicians. Past experience, going back generations and recorded in the archives of the academy along with the star charts from ages past, told of how rulers and potentates of many strange lands were willing to use the wisdom of the stars for private gain and personal advancement. The academy in the capital was present, in no small part, to remind the emperor that their role was distinct from his own, to preserve knowledge beyond the needs of the moment. These stone halls were built to echo the grandeur of the palace, but for wisdom's defense, not to protect royal prerogatives.
Would he live long enough to see his three colleagues return, with new knowledge and deeper insights? He doubted it. They had been gone a year and more, barely enough time to get to the shores of the fabled Inner Sea to the west of the great desert.
He hoped they would find there the news they sought; a ruler of the spirit more than of the body. The movements in the sky echoed patterns deep in the archives, recorded as forecasts, predictions of a greater ruler to come, from the heavens to earth, of all the nations and not just of one people.
Would he like that prophecy to be proven true? Yes indeed. What hope could be sweeter? He was weary of requests to predict profit and gain and achievement of personal goals; he prayed to the Lord of heaven that there might be a greater vision than just selfish desires.
That is what the stars are for, he thought. Their purity and constancy, moving in their stately paths even when the clouds obscured human vision, spoke to him of something greater, something more meaningful, something . . . Someone? with a heart for bringing people together more than a plan to dominate and conquer. Someone who ruled even the stars, but spoke to magi and monarchs and even humble shepherds in their field.
At the top of the spiral stairs, the broad viewing platform opened to the skies. The stars were silent to most observers, but to this wise man, they told a story. A story whose beginning he did not know, and whose end was beyond this life . . . but he could hope it included him. So he would continue to wait, and watch, and listen to what the stars had to say.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you hear echoes of the Christmas story at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.